Brexit negotiator hits back at Elton John before being accused of “hanging music industry out to dry”

The government was today accused of "sacrificing a £6billion sector and its workers for Brexit and anti-free movement zealotry"

Brexit negotiator Lord Frost used a government committee hearing today (Tuesday June 29) to hit back at Elton John over his claims around the European touring fiasco, before coming under fire himself for his “inaction” over the situation.

Sir Elton has been very vocal over the government jeopardising the future of touring for the UK artists, after the Brexit deal secured with the EU failed to negotiate visa-free travel and Europe-wide work permits for musicians and crew. Just this weekend, he called the government “philistines” and accused them of “crucifying” the careers of young artists.

Having previously met with Lord Frost to discuss the looming “catastrophe” for a potentially “lost” generation of musicians, today the politician took issue with the musician’s comments.

Completely ignoring the simple facts that the rules facing travelling musicians are completely different to what they were 40 years ago and that new restrictions are robbing artists of the freedoms they previously enjoyed, Frost told the hearing: “I can’t help noticing that he had his first hits before the UK even became a member of the European Union, so I think there’s probably more at play here than pure rules applying within the then European Community.”

This comes amid fears and predictions that the new rules and red tape will lead to musicians and crew facing huge costs to future live music tours of the continent – which could create a glass ceiling that prevents rising and developing talent from being able to afford to do so.

Credit: Getty

Today, MPs questioned Cabinet Office Minister and lead Brexit negotiator Lord Frost on the government’s failure to reach an agreement with the EU on creative workers, “leaving them facing practical and financial barriers to working in Europe”.

“I feel sorry that they have to face this situation,” said Frost. “The country took a decision to leave the European Union and to end freedom of movement, but that brings with it big change. There’s no point in pretending that change hasn’t happened.”

Continuing to blame the EU for their part in the negotiations, Frost and the Government were accused of “sacrificing a £6billion sector and its workers for Brexit and anti-free movement zealotry” – as well as being criticised for a continued lack of solutions of clarity now six months after the creative industries were “essentially left with a ‘No Deal'”.

Kevin Brennan MP also put it to Frost that no voters were asking the question “What are you going to do about all of these violinists coming over here from Poland?”, and the government should consider this more of a trade issue than one for immigration.

The point that freedom of movement was “essential” to the creative industries was repeated, but Frost and Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage said that they had now been speaking with individual EU member states about the rules and that overall it was “much more straightforward for touring than we first thought”. They said that visa-free touring would likely still be possible in 17 of the nations, and that bilateral talks were ongoing with Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Malta, Slovakia, Romania and Spain. However, Frost also admitted that there were still limits on touring in those 17 countries compared to the period when the UK was an EU member.

Spain remains the country with the toughest requirements and costs for British touring artists, with Dinenage claiming that this was being negotiated presently. Cabotage rules (which prevents UK touring trucks from making more than three stops in Europe in a seven day period before needing to return) also remain an “acute” issue, but Frost said that proposals were soon to be released by the Department For Transport to allow for “relaxations”.

“There are at least 17 countries of the 27 where pretty normal or indeed entirely normal travel is possible for the purposes of carrying out performances in normal circumstances,” said Lord Frost. “In practice, there would remain difficulties – I’m not denying that. But it is nevertheless the case that in big countries, like France and Germany, it is possible to travel without visas or work permits.”

“Our plan is to work with the countries in priority who do not have particularly liberal rules on this subject and get them to improve them,” said Frost, before Dinenage added that there were conversations with European countries for “visa-free travel embraced and understood” and to “increase the amount of cultural exchange” between the UK and the continent.

Wolf Alice, IDLES, Poppy Ajudha and Radiohead are among the 200 artists who have come together for #LetTheMusicMove Brexit touring campaign. Credit: Getty/NME
Wolf Alice, IDLES, Poppy Ajudha and Radiohead are among the 200 artists who have come together for #LetTheMusicMove Brexit touring campaign. Credit: Getty/NME

Frost and Dinenage’s responses did not land well with many in the music industry. Last week saw the launch of the #LetTheMusicMove campaign, with the likes of Wolf AliceIDLESPoppy Ajudha, Radiohead among the 200 artists calling upon the UK government to urgently take action to resolve the ‘No Deal’ that has landed upon the British music. They argued that “today’s Select Committee session will do little to soothe the growing concerns of the UK’s artists, musicians and live music businesses”.

“While we continue to suffer the catastrophic impacts of COVID, many are now in open despair at the Government’s disturbing lack of urgency to address a range of Brexit-related bureaucracy and costs that will make EU touring almost prohibitively expensive and burdensome,” a spokesperson said.

“Despite being told by the Prime Minister in March that Lord Frost was dealing with these issues and would ‘fix it’, we’re still left with only crumbs of additional information and absolutely no update on the kind of transitional support package that will be vital for music businesses to operate in the short-term.

“To put this in context, the UK’s £1billion fishing industry has received £23million to adjust to new red tape. As it stands, our £6billion world-beating music industry is being hung out to dry. It feels like a complete abdication of responsibility.”

Recently, Welsh electro pioneer Kelly Lee Owens scrapped her entire European tour as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit and the “anxiety” they had created – warning NME that the current situation is “doing serious damage to individuals“.

This comes after last week saw a new poll show that the majority of UK voters want the government to be doing more to solve the post-Brexit touring fiasco for musicians and crew, while campaigners have vowed that their “anger is not going away until they find a solution”.

The government has often been accused of treating the sector like “an afterthought” in Brexit negotiations compared to the £1.2billion fishing industry.

Responding to the criticisms at the time, a government spokesperson from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport claimed that they “had always been clear that the end of freedom of movement would have implications for professional mobility”.

A controversial issue throughout the continent, European festival promoters have said that they could be likely to book fewer UK acts as a result of Brexit, while figures from the UK music industry have expressed concern that the impact of the deal on musicians who might not be able to tour Europe could also potentially prevent them from acquiring a visa to play in the United States.

Bookers in Europe have told NME that “the effort should come from the UK” to overcome this.

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